Search this blog and The Mike's favorite blogs!

February 6, 2011

Horrors of the Black Museum

(1959, Dir. by Arthur Crabtree.)

If you're like me, you might have initially read the title of this movie and thought that it aimed to exploit the likes of George Washington Carver, Booker T. Washington, and Rosa Parks.   If you're like me, you then would have read up on the film and learned that you were, in fact, a fool.

Actually, the "Black Museum" that this title mentions is a real place that exists within the confines of Scotland Yard in London.  First established as a collection of seized property in 1874, what is formally known as the Crime Museum maintains almost every type of weapon - from "death masks" to nooses and shotgun umbrellas - that the British Police have ever encountered.  Naturally, the collection exists for educational purposes, as an attempt at "getting inside the mind of the criminal".  So, we've got a government sanctioned collection of everything macabre and evil thing the police can find...doesn't it sound like something that would come in handy in a horror movie?

That's the idea behind Horrors of the Black Museum, which was written and produced by b-movie mogul Herman Cohen.  Though his productions range from 1955's I Was a Teenage Werewolf to 1970's Trog, Horrors of the Black Museum is significant for being both the first color film and the first Cinemascope film released by the young American International Pictures, who Cohen worked with often. (In fact, Cohen was offered the chance to be a partner at AIP by its founder, James H. Nicholson, but had to turn down the opportunity due to a previous contract.)

The film stars Michael Gough, the future Alfred Pennyworth, as a writer who wants to make sure his works are as realistic as possible.  In his search for perfection, he insures that he's got material by manipulating an assistant to kill, using weapons from his own personal Black Museum (or, his own diabolical Batcave!) for each crime.  The film includes inventive set pieces such as "the fantastic binocular murder" which opens the film, and (like future booby trap horrors such as Saw) the kills get more unique as the film goes on.  The film packs a lot of destruction into only 78 minutes, but at times it feels like the film is advancing the plot abruptly just to get to the next kill.

Gough's performance in the lead is the most endearing part of the film, and makes up for a lot of the script's shortcomings.  There is next to no suspense in the film's plot as the identity of the killer is known from early in the film, and Gough's Edmond Bancroft struggles to keep his actions private from even the film's most tertiary characters.  But as Gough rambles about his plans and preaches about the dangers of women, the same charisma that made him the best part of any Batman movie makes him the kind of endearing villain that Vincent Price would have played.  (On a side note, one could also argue that the film's plot about a writer who writes about their own murders parallels films such as Basic Instinct, which allows me to make what I hope is the internet's first comparison between Michael Gough and Sharon Stone.)

Horrors of the Black Museum struggles to go the distance with its script, which is full of one note characters who are introduced just to become victims.  Though some of the kill scenes are effective (and pretty brutal for 1959) and Gough is a winner, the final product doesn't stand out among the AIP horrors of the era.  Horrors of the Black Museum is a fun little horror film, but attempts to take it too seriously will probably result in disappointment.

1 comment:

Jack Veasey said...

I saw this film as a young child in the early 60s, and it left an indelible impression on me. The binoculars murder was by far the most shocking, bloody thing anyone had seen in a film at the time. It's hard to imagine the film's original impact now, when you have things like the "Saw" films to compare it to. It really blew people away. If you saw it then -- even though it seems so dated -- it still retains some of that power when you see it now. It's like reliving a childhood trauma.